A beach town seized a Black couple’s land in the 1920s. Now their family could get it back | California

On a recent morning, Duane Yellow Feather Shepard, 69, sat on a grassy hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean, steps away from one of southern California’s most pristine beaches.

To visitors from around the world, it’s an idyllic stretch of coastline and a prime surfing spot. To Shepard, it’s the site that conceals a painful history.

His family’s ancestors – Willa and Charles Bruce – bought the land at the bottom of the hill in 1912 and built a resort run for and by Black residents. Despite harassment and violence from white neighbors and the Ku Klux Klan, the couple’s enterprise endured, providing rare California beach access for African Americans.

Then, in 1924, city officials condemned the neighborhood and moved to seize the property. The local council said it needed the plot for a park, but instead left it vacant for decades.

“They were terrorized and left destitute,” said Shepard, as joggers ran along the beach in front of him and surfers made their way to the water. “We want back what belongs to us.”

Charles and Willa Bruce.
Charles and Willa Bruce. Photograph: Courtesy of Duane Yellow Feather Shepard

There’s now a concerted effort to make that transfer a reality, nearly 100 years after the seizure. Last week, LA county officials announced an unprecedented legislative push to return the valuable property to the descendants of Willa and Charles, which would grant them the wealth they have been denied for generations.

“This is a reckoning that has been long overdue,” Anthony Bruce, a 38-year-old great-great-grandson said in a phone interview this week from Florida, where he lives. “For me and the generations after, this would mean an inheritance – and that internal security of knowing that I come from somewhere, that I come from a people.”

But in Manhattan Beach, which is less than 1% Black today, righting these historical wrongs is proving to be an uphill battle.

‘They covered up this history’

Willa Bruce bought their first plot of land by the ocean for $1,225. The LA Times reported in 1912 on the “great agitation” and “opposition” of white property owners, saying she “created a storm … by establishing a seaside resort for her race”.

Willa told the paper: “Wherever we have tried to buy land for a beach resort, we have been refused, but I own this land and I am going to keep it.”

A Los Angeles Times article from 27 June 1912 about Bruce’s Beach.
A Los Angeles Times article from 27 June 1912 about Bruce’s Beach. Photograph: Courtesy of Duane Yellow Feather Shepard

The area, which became known as Bruce’s Beach among African Americans, was one of a number of Black leisure spots that were formed in the region at that time.

“African Americans were establishing themselves, because they wanted to enjoy southern California’s offerings,” said Dr Alison Rose Jefferson, a historian and the author of Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era. “Having a place by the beach is a quintessential part of what the California dream is.”

But hate crimes and threats escalated against the Bruces. The KKK started a fire under a main deck, and Black visitors were forced to walk half a mile to reach the beach due to roadblocks set up at the adjacent property of George Peck, a wealthy landowner and developer, according to the LA Times.

In 1924, the city, which by then was called Manhattan Beach, condemned the Bruces’ land and other adjacent homes owned by Black residents, using eminent domain, with the stated goal of building a park. After years of litigation, the Bruces, who had sought $120,000, were given $14,000. And while a judge said they had the right to move back to Manhattan Beach, they couldn’t afford anything after they had lost their wealth and feared the KKK if they returned, said Shepard.

“They were poor and totally devastated,” said Shepard, noting that they moved to the east side of LA and spent the rest of their lives working as cooks in other people’s diners. Willa died five years later.

“Learning that a hate crime was committed against my family, it was jarring,” said Anthony Bruce, recalling his first visit to the site of their stolen land in the 80s when he was five. “It felt personal, like it was an attack against me.”

Today, the county estimates that Bruces’ property is worth $75m.

Anthony’s grandfather, Bernard Bruce, the grandson of Willa and Charles, grew up distraught about this history: “He was obsessed about it, because he knew how much it was worth. He was trying to get that land back for almost his entire life,” Anthony said.

Sweethearts Margie Johnson and John Pettigrew at the crowded Pacific Ocean shoreline.
Sweethearts Margie Johnson and John Pettigrew at the crowded Pacific Ocean shoreline. Photograph: Photograph from the private LaVera White Collection of Arthur and Elizabeth Lewis featured in Living the California Dream: African American Leisure Sites during the Jim Crow Era, 2020 by Alison Rose Jefferson.

Bernard made progress in 2006 when, with help from the city’s first Black councilman, officials renamed a nearby park Bruce’s Beach and put up a plaque honoring Willa and Charles. But the plaque excludes any mention of the KKK and harassment, and presents George Peck, considered a co-founder of Manhattan Beach, as a benevolent neighbor, who “made it possible” for the Bruces to run a beach for Black residents.

“George Peck was not the white savior of the Black people to allow this community to begin,” said Jefferson. “It misrepresents what happened.”

Standing by the plaque, Shepard said: “It doesn’t belong here with those lies on it.” He noted that the Bruces should be considered founders of Manhattan Beach just as much as Peck, adding, “Manhattan Beach covered up this history for 80 years. This was by design.”

The uprisings after the killing of George Floyd last year gave the Bruces and their supporters new momentum. But the progress is coming too late for Bernard, who died of Covid-19 in January at age 86.

‘So many generations were wronged’

The park now known as Bruce’s Beach is located on a hill just above the land that once housed the family’s resort. That property is now a bland building owned by LA county and used as a lifeguard training headquarters.

Last Friday, LA and state legislators stood outside it to unveil a new state bill that would remove restrictions on the property and allow the county to return it to the Bruces.

A plaque in Manhattan Beach where Charles and Willa Bruce owned a resort on the land before it was taken away by the city in 1924.
A plaque in Manhattan Beach where Charles and Willa Bruce owned a resort on the land before it was taken away by the city in 1924. Photograph: Damon Casarez/The Guardian

“I was born and raised in Los Angeles, and I’m embarrassed to be honest that I did not know this story until last year,” Janice Hahn, the LA county supervisor leading the legislative effort, told the Guardian. “I grew up learning to swim in the ocean a few blocks from what was Bruce’s Beach … So when I finally heard this story, I felt there was nothing else I could do but figure out how to return this property.”

One possible plan is to give ownership of the property back to the family, who could then lease it back to the county, said Shepard, who is a cousin of the direct descendants.

The impact of the loss of generational wealth is difficult to calculate, but Shepard said the majority of Bruces today live under the poverty line, noting a great-great grandson who can’t afford to own a car and still walks to work: “It’s hit them very hard – there are student loans they could have paid off, there are mortgages they might not even have had. They would have been multimillionaires.”

“All of these generations have been wronged,” said Anthony. “This will affect my children and their children’s children … And I want them to know that they can receive justice from their government.”

If successful, Hahn said she hoped it would be a model for returning land, including for Japanese Americans whose property was taken during the second world war, and Native Americans.

There are thousands of Black families who have suffered like the Bruces, Jefferson noted, including farmers pushed off of their land and homeowners whose neighborhoods were seized for freeways.

“This is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Shepard, who is also indigenous and a chief of the Pocasset Wampanoag tribe of the Pokanoket Nation.

‘Black people are still unwelcome’

While LA county and state leaders are pushing ahead, not all in the region have been supportive.

Last week, the Manhattan Beach city council, the same entity that took their land a century ago, voted to oppose a symbolic proclamation to apologize to the Bruces, citing concerns it would make the city liable for future lawsuits.

Meanwhile, an anonymous group of residents has run full-page ads in a local paper arguing that a “woke mob” had exaggerated the history of racism at Bruce’s Beach and urging the council not to apologize.

The property that was once owned by the Bruces is now a lifeguard training headquarter.
The property that was once owned by the Bruces is now a lifeguard training headquarter. Photograph: Damon Casarez/The Guardian

It’s all been a reminder, advocates say, of how racism has persisted in this waterfront community.

“That says they don’t even regard Black people as people,” said Kavon Ward, a Black resident of Manhattan Beach who last year founded a group called Justice for Bruce’s Beach to advocate for the land to be returned. She said she’s experienced racism since moving to the city four years ago, including being asked by a white resident which family she was nannying for.

“I’ve heard so many stories of Black people who grew up here and are still scarred. They say they will never step foot again here, because they feel they are not welcome, especially the closer you get to the water.”

Black surfers have also spoken about racism at Manhattan Beach, where they say white surfers have harassed them and called them racist slurs.

On a recent morning, Tagus Ashford stopped by the plaque to take a photo after learning about Bruce’s Beach in the news. The Black Oklahoma City resident, who was in town visiting family, said he was not surprised to learn of the pushback.

“People get uncomfortable when people start to claim what is theirs, especially when it was stolen or ill gotten. But it’s important for people to claim their ancestral rights,” he said, adding that the ongoing racial tensions in Manhattan Beach were palpable to him as soon as he arrived: “You can feel it in the air.”

Shepard said he was appalled by the city’s refusal to even say sorry and that his family would be pushing for restitution and damages from Manhattan Beach, beyond getting the property back from the county.

“We’re still suffering for what their ancestors did. Somebody needs to rectify this injustice,” he said. “They’re still benefiting from the generational wealth of their ancestors while we don’t have a dime coming in.”

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